What’s the matter with Kansas? As a Kansan, born and raised, one who has lived on both coasts, I’m often asked this question. Usually the question comes from a liberal perspective, as it was taken in the book by political scientist Thomas Frank from whom this documentary draws its name. Why do Kansans, Frank asks, consistently vote against their own economic interests, despite a history of populism? But the movie is more complex than that leading question.
The author Thomas Frank is just one piece of a quilt that What’s the Matter with Kansas? sews over the course of the film. Documentarians Laura Cohen and Joe Winston let Kansans speak for themselves, and by doing so, paint a nuanced picture of the heartland values that lead to votes on either side.
There are many storylines in the film — the head of a farmer’s union testifying eloquently to congress, the pastor who refuses to stop telling his flock how to vote, the nerdy Frank going down back roads in search of Kansas’ radical history, the wide-eyed girl bound for a Christian college — and then there’s Angel.
It was probably inevitable that Angel’s story would take over the film. We meet her as she is now, a gospel musician, mother and ranch owner who is an active member of the local Baptist church. But she tells of an amazing past: a failed marriage in California to an abusive husband, a baby, brain-damaged from improper delivery by a medical resident, and a moment where she contemplated suicide but God dissuaded her with a miraculous sign. (What that sign was, we never find out.)
I won’t spoil how Angel’s story ends, because it is the big coup that fell into the lap of director Joe Winston, a story about a church and a theme park called Wild West World that couldn’t have better underlined the economics vs. religion tension that is at the heart of the film.
There could not be a better time to check out this film than right now, with politicians on both sides of the aisle calling for a new era of civility. By letting people of all political stripes tell their own compelling stories, this film is a shining example of how such civility might be accomplished. As a person from the heartland, it was refreshing to see my fellow Kansas represented so respectfully. And people from outside “flyover country” are going to have their eyes opened wide by this film, which presents a narrative about Kansas that is far from the ‘boring and full of rednecks’ stereotypes I’ve often encountered.
This DVD (available Jan. 25 or pre-order now) comes with bonus features like filmmaker commentary and deleted and extended scenes that help expand the depth of the film and connect the political narrative to the rise of the Tea Party movement. It will also be available in an educational version from Documentary Educational Resources and streaming on demand through Film Buff. Big recommend.